The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny (2008)

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, Book #3

the cruelest month l penny

The worst of winter seems to be receding from the small, lovely village of Three Pines. Snow is melting, flowers are beginning to bloom, and the town residents are cheerfully preparing for the village’s Easter celebrations. In the opening chapters, readers get to catch up with some of the characters they have grown to love in the series’ first two books as they — along with some new faces — plan for egg hunts and potluck lunches.

At the local B&B, the proprietor Gabri has planned a surprise event for Easter weekend — a seance is to be held, lead by a psychic who is visiting the village for the holiday. Some villagers are appalled at the idea of raising the spirits of the dead: some protest that a seance is in bad taste because the town has been the site of two brutal murders in recent years. Others because it seems sacrilege to host a seance during the Easter holidays. A group of villagers who see it as a lark arrive at the B&B on Good Friday. While fun, the seance does not produce any ghosts; which the psychic suggests is because the B&B is too happy of a place and the guests at the seance too cheerful.

Why not try again, it is suggested, but this time, at the haunted Old Hadley House?

The second seance is much darker, the house’s horrific past seems to be much more conducive to calling up the dead. Indeed, the guests at this seance not only stir up the house’s ghosts, but they make a new one when a local woman named Madeline is scared to death during the event.

Once again, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is called the the sleepy village to investigate when it becomes clear that Madeline’s death was not only because the woman was very frightened; her death was hastened when she was drugged by someone before the seance began, drugs that helped stop her heart.

By all accounts the dead woman was beloved by all and no one can imagine who would want her dead. Gamache and his team know that love can turn to hate over time, and that some murderers can hide their evil intent even from those closest to them.

As the case plods along, Gamache is introduced to the idea of the “near enemy” theory by town book-shop owner and psychologist, Myrna Landers. It is possible, he is told, that people can hide their true intentions behind the mask of another emotion. What on the surface looks like compassion can really — in the mind of a person with ill-intent — be pity. Some might see a person in love, but inside, he or she might really just be feeling obsessive attachment: a emotion that is dark and controlling. As Gamache begins to ponder this theory, he suspects that the “near enemy” is indeed at the heart of the case. The murder is masquerading as one type of person, while a more sinister and vindictive person lies underneath.

Yet another masterpiece of mystery fiction by Penny, filled with heart, wisdom, and compassion. On to the next book in the series, A Rule Against Murder.

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A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache Book #2

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In her second book in the outstanding Armand Gamache series, A Fatal Grace, Louise Penny takes us once again to the picture-perfect village of Three Pines in the days leading up to Christmas. Nestled in the mountains outside of Montreal, Three Pines is a small, sleepy, village filled with good people, cozy homes, and cheerful businesses. It is a place painted with such detail and heart by Penny that readers can imagine they are in the village along side the book’s characters: walking along the snowy town green, looking up at the towering pine trees by the lake, glancing in the windows of the tidy homes to see Christmas trees lit and fires roaring. Three Pines is a place everyone wishes to call home.

This Christmas, there is a dark stain sullying the village — CC de Poitiers. CC is hard woman who has alienated or insulted many of the villagers since her recent move to Three Pines. Along with her husband and daughter, CC is living in the old Hadley House, a house that looms over the town, a reminder of past horrors, of murder and pain. To her family, CC is hateful toward her daughter and cruel and dismissive of her husband. To the villagers in her new town, she is mean-spirited and largely detested. In a short time of living there, CC has managed to create a long list of people who could be called her enemies. But CC is possessed by a sort of madness, an obsession with herself that blinds her to how much others loathe her, all she cares about are her spiritual “teachings” that she is trying to bring to the (dull, stupid) world around her. She wants to enlighten these poor, backwoods slobs about the real truths of the universe; and she will stop at nothing until she has made millions leading the world down her “path”, which she calls Be Calm.

Despite the ill-will that CC has been spreading in town, Christmas finds the villagers happily celebrating their beloved holiday traditions: church, parties, shared meals, gift-giving, and well-wishes. One local tradition at Christmas is a Boxing Day breakfast and curling match that raises money for local charities. It is at this match the CC’s misdeeds catch up with her. She is electrocuted to death in front of the entire community, yet no one seems to have know who committed the crime.

Enter Armand Gamache, Chief Homicide Inspector for the Sûreté du Québec, and his investigative team who are dispatched from Montreal to solve the crime. Wise, patient, calm, and unfailingly kind, Gamache is known and liked in the town of Three Pines and utterly worshiped by his fellow officers. With his signature slow pace, intimate interview style, and his determination to examine the feelings of those involved in the crime; Gamache begins to piece together a list of suspects who might have wanted to kill CC…a list that is very, very long.

Through the ice, snow, and cold; Gamache and his team unearth the truth about who CC was and why she was such a hard, hateful woman and start to connect her to those people she had hurt, exploited, and abused, knowing that one of them was sure to be revealed as the killer.

Louise Penny is a brilliant writer and this book was utterly fantastic! Her prose is gorgeous; so poetic that it is almost spell-binding. Her words bring to life Three Pines in stunning detail and she presents us with characters who are so life-like it seems entirely possible that they will step off the pages of her book, as real as her readers. I have already started the next book in the series and cannot wait to read more about the characters — good and evil — Penny has brought to life.

The Private Patient by PD James (2008)

Part of the Adam Dalgliesh series, Book #14

I love P. D. James’ murder mysteries, due in large part to how much they demand of the reader. Incredibly dense and complex, her books cannot be rushed and often present multiple possible suspects who have complex relationships to the victims. The sheer amount of detail that goes into each of her books makes them very easy to re-read, as I did this weekend with The Private Patient. Not only had I had I forgot whodunnit, there were many, many tiny clues and nuances that I missed the first time around.

Rhoda Gradwyn is a wealthy and powerful investigative journalist who has lived most of her life with a large scar on her face — courtesy of a drunken, abusive father — but has finally decided to have plastic surgery to remove it, for no other reason than she “no longer has need of it.” Rhoda chooses to one of the most respected, and most expensive, surgeons in London to remove the scar and, to protect her privacy, opts to have the surgery not in London but at a private clinic Dr. George Chandler-Powell operates for his wealthiest patients, in a restored manor house in Dorset called Cheverell Manor.

Rhoda arrives in Dorset for her operation to find lush, opulent accommodations and world-class service from the staff. What she does not realize, is that she — or at least her work — is known to many of the staff working at Cheverell, and some consider her “brand” of journalism  to be exploitative and cruel to the subjects of her pieces.

When the morning following her surgery the kitchen maid finds Rhoda strangled in her bed, the small staff at the manor are shocked and terrified, as they assume it was an outsider who breached security and killed her. However, her death catches the attention of the Prime Minister and an elite squad of detectives from London are brought in to investigate.

Leading the squad is, of course, James’ brilliant police investigator Commander Adam Dalgliesh and two younger detectives, Kate Miskin and Francis Benton-Smith. Together the three of them move into houses on the grounds of the manor and begin the painstakingly slow process of solving the murder.

One thing that becomes clear almost immediately that it is someone living at Cheverell Manor who was responsible. As the detectives work, they have to uncover the complicated ties that bind all of the residents of the Manor to one another and to Rhoda and try to determine who had a grudge against the journalist that was contentious enough to lead them to murder her.

Just like all of PD James’ Dalgliesh books, this one is a intelligent and compelling murder mystery, that allows readers to follow along as the detectives piece the story together and zero in on the murderer.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (2017)

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After reading several “must- read summer books” lists that included this murder mystery by Anthony Horowitz, I picked up a copy at the library excited to read. Horowitz’s YA books are a staple in my house and I had liked his Sherlock Holmes novel The House of Silk. However, this book was a vague disappointment and felt throughout that the author was making only a partial effort to tell a story that was engaging.

The premise of the book was quite clever. The first half of the book is a 1950’s cozy mystery — the full text of Magpie Murders, the final book of a fictional mystery series featuring PI Atticus Pund is included, minus its final “whodunit” chapter — once the Atticus Pund mystery has ended, a second modern story begins.

In the second half, we return to present-day London where Susan Ryeland is reading the Atticus Pund book along with us. Our new protagonist is the book editor to a wildly popular author of the Pund books, named Alan Conway. Susan is shocked to find the final chapter of the Magpie Murders is missing, but even more shocked when she learns that Alan Conway has died.

So begins the second mystery story in the book: Susan must work to determine whether or not the author had finished the book; if so, where is the missing chapter? As she delves deeper, it becomes clear that Conway’s death is very suspicious and soon a whole cast of characters emerge who may have wanted the author dead… possibly because the Magpie Murders exposes details of a real murder.

The author did a great job in part one of the book, creating a wonderful character in Atticus Pund and a great Agatha Christie-esque mystery with Magpie Murders. However, part two falls flat with the slightly unlikable Susan Ryeland and a new mystery that should be compelling but simply is not. While the overall effect is passable, it would have been a much stronger book with a more energetic second half.

In This Grave Hour by Jacqueline Winspear (2017)

Note: Other books in this series, and stand alone books by Winspear, can be found using the tag “Winspear” on the right hand side of this site’s main page. This post may contain spoilers for earlier books in this series.

in this grave hour

In This Grave Hour, the thirteenth installment of the fantastic Maisie Dobbs Series, opens on a somber note on September 3, 1939 at the very moment that the British government declared war on Germany and entered World War II. On that same morning, Maisie Dobbs — a “psychologist and investigator” in London — is assigned a new case: find a murderer who is targeting Belgian men who came to England as refugees during the first World War.

After years of personal turmoil, including losing her husband and baby, and working as a nurse in the Spanish Civil War, the summer of 1939 finds Maisie Dobbs returned to London and Kent: her city-based investigative business thriving and her weekend life in the country with her father and in-laws stable and contented. However, the declaration of war changes everything immediately: children removed from their city homes and relocated to the live with strangers country; London bracing for bombings; and everywhere young men enlisting, terrifying their parents who still keenly remember their loses in WWI.

Against that back-drop, Maisie follows the trail of a handful of WWI Belgian refugees who came to England as orphaned boys and stayed to build a life after Armistice, men who are now turning up dead, executed one-by-one. Together with her two assistants, the local police, a Secret Service agent, and a Belgian diplomat; Maisie begins to uncover the connection between the then boys, now men, and their murderer and the reasons for these apparently long-delayed executions.

Told in Winspear’s signature style — calm, methodical, precise, and rich with historical details — In This Grave Hour is yet another mesmerizing investigation unfolds and more hints about the future in store for Maisie Dobbs are revealed. Wonderful!

Echoes In Death JD Robb (2017)

For an introduction to the In Death series, see this post https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2015/10/18/in-death/

For a review of the In Death book that proceeded Echoes in Death in the series, view this post https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2016/10/14/apprentice-in-death-by-jd-robb-2016/

echoes in death cover

Echoes in Death, the 44th book in JD Robb’s prolific futuristic, science-fiction murder mystery series, opens with Lt. Eve Dallas and her husband, Roarke, discovering a naked and battered woman wandering the frozen New York City streets. After racing her to the hospital they learn that she is the young wife of a prominent surgeon. Once the hospital staff confirm her identity and concur that the young woman has been the victim of a brutal physical and sexual attack; Dallas and her partner, Peabody, arrive at her home to find her husband has been murdered, presumably by the same attacker as his wife.

On the surface the attacks appear to be a rape/murder perpetrated in the course of a home invasion. All evidence points to that conclusion: the home of a wealthy couple invaded, the couple attacked, and the attacker had left only after stealing artwork, cash, and jewelry. As the wife begins to regain her memories of the evening, and Dallas and Peabody interview friends of the couple, information that suggests that the husband abused his wife (and possibly a previous wife) comes to light and the cops have to work out whether she killed in self-defense or if someone else was involved in an elaborate escape plan.

Two fellow NYPD detectives approach Dallas and Peabody with evidence that links two of their cold cases with her murder investigation and all four detectives agree that the three cases are similar enough that the attacker most likely is a serial rapist who has escalated into murder.

Tracing the intricate relationships between the three cases, the team begin to uncover a pattern: the murderer is targeting prominent, wealthy couples in which the wife is extraordinarily beautiful. Dr. Mira, the department psychiatrist and recurrent character in the series, creates a chilling profile that suggests the killer is attacking “surrogates” who reminds him of someone he has long known and long wanted to harm.

Although this series can be formulaic and repetitive, this book felt reinvigorated and the plot and details kept it feeling fresh and fast paced. A dark series, too dark for those sensitive to graphic murder mysteries, but one that has fought to remain vital after forty+ books.

An Unsuitable Job for A Woman by P.D. James (1977)

” ‘I should have thought that the job was –‘ Cordelia finished the sentence for him. ‘An unsuitable job for a woman?’ ‘ Not at all. Entirely suitable for a woman I should have thought, requiring infinite curiosity, infinite pains and a penchant for interfering.’ ” (100)

 

 

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Cambridge University, England.

I am a long-time fan of P.D. James mystery fiction (or, as she calls them, her “crime novels”) but up until this week, I have read only books within the Adam Dalgliesh series. While those are superb novels and every single one is well-worth a read, I found this novel (part of the “Cordelia Gray series,” of which there are only two books) to be refreshingly light and more energetic while still containing the signature intelligence and wit of James.  No doubt, the youthful air of the novels comes from the fact that their heroine is a young London woman running her own private investigation firm. Compared to her much more famous counterpart, Cordelia Gray has no weighty history to contend with nor any bothersome police procedures to adhere to. As a result, An Unsuitable Job For A Woman, presents us with a thrilling, fast-paced novel without the density of James’ other works.

Our short-lived heroine, Cordelia Gray, was a child raised in the British foster-care system who was forced to abandon her education during her high-school years, and as a result found finding work in 1970’s London rather challenging. A temporary typing gig turns into an apprenticeship with a shady PI who, upon his untimely death, leaves the business to Cordelia to run. Tough and scrappy after years of upheaval and poverty, Cordelia may be inexperienced in her new career, but her street-smarts and work-ethic make up for some of what she has yet to learn.

“Despite its look of deceptive youth it could be a secret, uncommunicative face. Cordelia had early learnt stoicism. All her foster parents, kindly and well-meaning in their different ways, had demanded one thing of her — that she should be happy. She had quickly learned that to show unhappiness was to risk the loss of love. Compared with this early discipline of concealment, all subsequent deceits had been easy.” (21)

Her first case comes just days after she inherits the struggling detective agency: a wealthy scientist of some distinction wants to hire Cordelia to investigate the reasons behind his adult son’s suicide. Cordelia, her client reasons, will more naturally fit in as she makes inquiries among his sons colleagues and classmates at Cambridge University. Soon Cordelia finds herself taking temporary (and free) lodgings in the very cottage where Mark Callendar took his life and mixing with the students and staff at the university.

Cordelia is determined to prove herself to her client, and more importantly to herself, that despite her age, gender, and lack of formal education, she can not only investigate the circumstances of his son’s death, but also hold her own among the elite academics and wealthy residents of the town and college. Indeed Cordelia soon finds her stoicism and keen observation skills allow her to mix with her peers, while insulating herself from their often causal cruelty and their dismissiveness of her based on her lack of social and academic standing.

Readers find Cordelia in 1970’s Cambridge, a time of loosening social mores and outright questioning of all authority figures. The educational formality that had reigned in Cambridge for hundreds of years was yielding to freer ideas about sex, drugs, religion, philosophy all while the students themselves were living without the supervision of previous generations.

“Cordelia was intrigued by the overt sexuality, she had thought intellectuals breathed too rarified air to be much interested in the flesh. Obviously this was a misapprehension. … She found herself intimidated by the underlying ruthlessness and the half-understood conventions of these tribal matings.” (98)

By befriending those who had been close to Mark, at wild parties and during punting trips down the river Cam, Cordelia begins to get a sense of the quiet, bookish young man who had undergone a recent revolution in his worldviews and had begun to questioned his place among the wealthy elite. Clue by clue, Cordelia retraces Mark’s steps to find just what led to this transformation and whether or not Mark learned something during his period of discovery led — not to his suicide — but to his murder.

A short, fun read for those who love a cozy PI mystery, told by a wonderful story-teller. If only PD James had found Cordelia interesting enough to fill more books!